Some of y’all may be old enough to remember these days, but I distinctly remember driving back home to Dallas from visiting my grandparents in Fort Worth at night, lying down on the hat rack of the car, that shelf behind the back seat where the speakers are located. I loved it there, because you could lie there and look out the sloping rear windshield like in a planetarium, watching the stars as you raced down the highway at 70 miles per hour.
For those of you who didn’t grow up in that generation, you are rightly horrified by the notion of a five-year old lying down on a hat rack, seatbelt nowhere in sight, a potential flesh-and-bone 70 mile per hour projectile should my dad had to have made a sudden stop. And, it wasn’t as though my parents were some kind of neglectful monsters. If a police car drove by, he would have thought nothing of it. It was what all parents did.
There is no doubt that there are many things we do with our children that are so much safer these days; car seats and seatbelts come immediately to mind. But, in our fervent haste to protect our children, it seems like we often go way too far on the emotional side. In protecting their seemingly-fragile psyches, we wrap them in emotional bubble wrap, creating a non-resilient human being who is ill-equipped to face the challenges of this world. We really don’t do praise well.
The self-esteem movement of the 80s and the years following killed us, and convinced us that building up our children’s self-esteem was the way to create well-adjusted, confident young adults. While praise, appropriately used, is effective, we as Christians have uncritically adopted this worldly philosophy without running it through the grid of Scripture. God’s Word tells us that there’s nothing wrong with our self-esteem, if by “nothing wrong” we mean that we are completely self-aware, self-focused, self-directed, selfish beings. Unless we are somehow damaged, the ordinary, “healthy” kid does not suffer from low self-esteem. He suffers from it in abundance, and telling him he’s “awesome” at everything is like pouring gasoline on a fire. There are people in this world who have self- esteem that is higher than any of the rest of us, the highest in the world. We call those people sociopaths, and we typically restrict their freedom so that they can’t hurt the rest of us.
Researchers like Carol Dweck have been telling us for years that sloppy and excessive use of praise doesn’t help, but actually harms kids. It makes them afraid to take healthy risks, those risks in life that often lead to success, like asking out that girl who may one day be his wife or stepping out on his own to start his own business. They’re afraid to do it, because they’ve been told all their life they’re “awesome,” and if they fail, they can’t face the possibility that they’re not. It also damages their resilience, or their ability to pick themselves up after life knocks them down, again and again, which we all know is the key to living life well. Careless use of praise is in many ways as bad, if not worse, than no praise at all.
So, how do we as parents use praise well? We have to be intentional with it. I read an article recently by Heidi Stevens, who cites child psychologist Kristin Race in giving three things to keep in mind when praising kids (incidentally, these things are useful and helpful when praising anyone-employees, friends, and spouses, as well). First, praise should be process-oriented, rather than outcome-oriented. If she really is a mediocre soccer player, don’t tell her she’s “awesome,” or “great.” That’s sloppy praise. If she actually cares at all about being a better soccer player, pick one thing she did well and praise that, then tie her hard work (assuming she’s been working on it) to that one thing she did well. If she doesn’t give a rip about soccer, and just likes hanging out with her friends and picking flowers on the sidelines, then just comment on how fun the game was and how pretty the flowers are. Your presence and support communicates your love without you telling her she’s “awesome.”
Secondly, and tied to the first, make praise specific. Don’t say his painting is “great,” or the “best I’ve ever seen.” It’s not. I mean, let’s face it—unless you are seriously deluded, it’s laughable compared to the Sistine Chapel, correct? So, don’t say that. Say, “I like how you used color here. I like this use of texture.” “What were you trying to say with this piece?” (Assuming he was trying to say anything, and not just doing it for fun—then just say, “isn’t it fun to create? What a great gift our creator God has given us!”). Again, not everything needs to be praised. Love, yes. Encouragement, yes. Praise only what’s worthy of praise.
Third, make it genuine. He sees the other kids, and he knows pretty quickly when he’s better than someone at something and not as good as someone at something else. So, telling him he’s great when he’s not is disingenuous and creates false expectations. Over time, he’ll start believing that greatness in that area of mediocrity is your expectation for him, and he’ll do whatever he can to meet that expectation, maybe even cutting corners or cheating to get there, and feeling frustration, guilt, and the burden of your unmet expectations when he can’t. Instead, praise him for what he actually does well, or for giving great effort toward what he doesn’t do well, but wants to or needs to do better (like algebra). Again, help him make the connection between hard work and specific, genuine results.
Praising kids this way is much harder and more intentional than just saying, “great job” or “you’re awesome.” It might require us to look up from our screens, focus and think about how we will respond when they say “Dad, look at me!” But, good praise-genuine, specific, tied to encouraging hard work and resilience, and used when appropriate- can only be done really well when bathed in prayer and Spirit-led. When done well, they won’t need the bubble-wrap, because they’ll know who they are and be ready to face life with persistent, faithful resolve.